Plastic waste is a global issue and Governments around the world have tried to come up with policies and legislation that would be able to solve the issue. In Kenya, the government banned the use of plastic bags in 2019.

The ban of plastic bags also ignited a conversation on the issue of the waste around plastic bottles or PET as the industry calls them. Coca-Cola and various partners came up with a strategy to be able to support efforts to recycle plastic bottles in the market. That’s how PETCO Kenya (Kenya PET Recycling Company) was born (in 2018).

PETCO Kenya’s work ties into Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste campaign, which has seen over 320 million plastic bottles converted and recycled into new products in 2019. With the World Without Waste campaign, which was launched in 2018, Coca-Cola has committed to make all its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025 and use 50% recycled material in their bottles and cans by 2030. Since 2010, The Coca-Cola Foundation has committed more than USD 26 million to various recycling initiatives through 57 partner organizations around the world with PETCO Kenya being one of them.

We had a chance to talk to PETCO Country Manager Joyce Gachungi on her organization’s work to reduce plastic bottle waste and how this ties into Coca-Cola’s pledge for a world without waste.

How did PETCO come about and what informed the need for it?

In 2017, the Kenyan Government was already had already started thinking about the ban of plastic bags. When the government banned plastic bags they said that were also planning to ban PET bottles as well. Globally, different corporates such as Coca-Cola, were already doing work in this area including in South Africa around the management of plastic packaging used in the beverage sector primarily PET, so they decided to take action. Coca-Cola then partnered with seven other companies, who are our members, including Unilever, Naivas supermarkets, Kevian Kenya and Coca-Cola bottlers in Kenya. They came together and met the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) to present the PETCO model that had been highly successful, since 2004, in reducing PET waste in that country. South Africa is the birthplace of the PETCO model and Coca-Cola was an anchor member.

So together with KAM we presented the use case for the PETCO model in Kenya to the Ministry of Environment and NEMA and we came up with a framework where corporates would be able to manage PET waste.

This model is quite interesting in the sense that instead of waiting for the government to come up and ban plastic bottles, you have come up with this private sector solution. Do you think this is a better model instead of waiting for government intervention?

The PETCO model is definitely better and is really a form of extended producer responsibility, but it’s been contextualized to fit into the African context. This model exists in Europe and in a lot of Asian countries, but their version is slightly different. In the sense that there is government legislation and interventions that make it mandatory for companies to be part of an organization like PETCO. For instance, in Asia or in Denmark, you cannot manufacture Coca-Cola products if you’re not a member of an organization like PETCO. The bottles that go into the market have a logo that identifies that each bottle will be collected and recycled after use by a consumer.

In Kenya, we didn’t have legislation but we have companies that are environmentally conscious and they were able to see that given a risk assessment but this is going to be something that is going to be needed. They also saw it as the responsible way in which to do business, so they chose to go the PETCO way.

Through our model other manufacturers are beginning to see the need to go the same way with the recycling of other types of material in Kenya. If more manufacturers can take this route, then the government does not need to ban anything. All companies need to do is to join or form organizations such as PETCO that can be able to hold them accountable.

Do you see legislation that mandates recycling such as what you described in Europe as a way forward in Kenya?

It would be helpful for instance if companies could be mandated to join organizations that would make rules that would make them accountable in recycling what they put out. Then we wouldn’t be having waste material lying around. The only waste that would be ending up in landfills or in incineration would be non-recyclable ones.

Separately, the government has crafted the national solid waste sustainable management bill and in it, it actually talks loudly about the extended producer responsibility. What that has done is to allow NEMA to draft actual regulations around how organizations like PETCO are supposed to operate and how they to be governed.

Generally we are working with government to develop something that is that is beneficial not just to the private sector or manufacturers or producers, but to consumers as well. There’s a responsibility for the consumer for instance that after they have had a soda, they dispose of it in a bin for recyclable plastic and then its collected and recycled. Organizations like ours and the government would then make sure that infrastructure for collection and recycling that plastic is there.

Which initiatives have you been involved in since inception?

The year 2020 has been slow but I would say since inception we’ve been able to identify and do a baseline survey of the industry. The survey, which was heavily supported by Coca-Cola provided vital data on the amount of waste that is produced in this country. We were then able to use that data to engage the government on the volumes of waste that we could be able to collect and recycle.

We have partnered with retail partners such as Naivas Supermarkets to roll out drop off points for PET bottles and other recyclable waste. We provided segregated bins in different malls where Naivas operates including Ciata Mall, Two Rivers, Capital Centre, Galleria, Yaya Centre among others. This model has been very successful and PETCO has been approached by resident associations who asked them to provide these bins in other malls in Nairobi.

Kenya PET Recycling Company (PETCO) Chairman John Waithaka (right) and Naivas Supermarkets Capital Centre Branch Manager Maurice Mwangi (centre) launch drop-off points

We also had an in-store campaign with Naivas where we were able to conduct consumer awareness and educate them on recycling. To consumers plastic is plastic so they are not really able to have a differentiation on the different types of plastic.

We were also able to launch a buyback centres for waste in low-income areas. These areas are not serviced by garbage collectors so we launched these centres to be able to recover waste that is in areas such as Kibera. So, waste collectors are able to go around and collect the waste and then go to shop where they can sell it. We empowered these buyback centres to be able to buy the waste well above market rate. This is thanks to a subsidy that PETCO provides to recyclers to enable them to buy waste well above the market rate. This means that waste collectors are also able to make more money and this motivates them to collect more waste. We’ve seen a lot of uptake in these communities so we are planning to open up more buyback centres in places such as Kibera and Mathare before end of the year. We have also partnered with a recycler who receives and recycles the collected waste.

In 2019 we were able to collect and recycle 7,700 metric tons of waste that is over 320 million bottles. In 2020, we have been able to recycle 3500 metric tons so far.

With the model that PETCO is pursuing, you are making a circular economy possible by ensuring plastics are reused and there is no waste. Do you see this as an investment opportunity for companies in recycling?

Currently the opportunity exists in collection, recycling and then exporting this material to countries in Asia. We however see an opportunity where the recycled material stays in our local market. We are seriously looking into bottle to water conversion and water to bottle means we take the bottles we recycle them into pellets and make new resin that can be used to make new bottles. If you go to South Africa, you’ll be able to see some of their bottles have some recycled content in them and that’s the direction we want to take. This model is sustainable, and it is circular, and the opportunity then lies in collection because in order to have bottle to bottle conversion, we need to be able to have the waste collection.

To be able to do this however we need a better collection system so that the bottles collected are not contaminated. This means that the bottles collected need to be segregated at source and then taken them directly to the recycling plant and now they will be used to make a new bottle. In August, we were able to actually deploy a segregation at source program at Nyayo Estate in Nairobi. Now we can see the bottles from this estate are going into recycling immediately instead of going to the dump sites. This is a better model where can we see plastic bottles being absorbed into the value chain faster than the ones from the damp sites. The collectors also get a better price full price for their material because it’s not contaminated.

How do you see what are you are doing tying into the Coca-Cola World Without Waste campaign?

Coca-Cola’s dream is to recycle every bottle they produce and by 2030 they want to be able to recycle 100% of the bottles they produce. For instance, if Coca-Cola produces say a hundred million bottles, they want to make sure a hundred million bottles are recycled. Coca-Cola is PETCO’s largest supporter and we are trying to help them achieve their target.